Lights and camera action

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Nepotism and a chaotic training structure are holding Britain's film industry back. Nicholas Pyke reports on plans to groom the next generation of movie-makers

The Christmas Day release of Cold Mountain, the American Civil War epic starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman will be another minor triumph for the British film industry.

Although it is funded by Hollywood, those actually making the film - from the star and director down to the camera, lighting, special effects and sound engineers - are almost entirely British. This country may not have the cash, says the industry, but it has an unrivalled pool of people skilled in making films.

This often-repeated boast may soon prove hollow unless measures are taken to sort out the way Britain finds and trains movie-makers of the future.

London may be one of the world's great media centres yet getting a job in film remains a chaotic, uncertain and nepotistic business, says the UK Film Council, the agency charged with looking after the financial well-being of British movie-making.

Moreover, the competition is gaining strength. The gates of Shepperton and Pinewood swing open and shut thanks largely to business from US studios.

But countries in Eastern Europe, and Australia and Canada, often with the help of government subsidies in the form of tax breaks, are proving attractive locations. They will in time also have skilful workforces of their own.

Five years ago the benefit of using British crews was so obvious that Nicole and Jude would have filmed Cold Mountain here. But the dramatic scenery on view at Christmas is Romanian, With few studios of its own and no financial clout, skills are often all the British industry has to offer. That is why the Film Council and and the industry's skills body Skillset have launched a new pound;50 million plan to train the next generation of UK film talent.

Skillset is the sector skills council for the audio-visual industry, promoting training in television, radio and computer entertainment as well as film.

Over the next five years, its project, entitled "A bigger future" hopes to establish:

* A national network of screen academies, based in existing higer education colleges and universities, to train students for the industry. The National Film and Television School would have a key role.

* A new film business academy aimed at students who want to work on the commercial side.

* Am approved list of courses recommended by the industry.

It also suggests ways to improve careers advice for those interested in film, including setting up a pool of professionals willing to give tips for free, and locate good trainees.

Grants for training and training managers, perhaps based across several companies at once, would help, says the Film Council. So would promoting modern apprenticeships and creating a generic introduction course for industry.

Depite the huge and growing interest in media studies in both further and higher education, most of the courses on offer are too theoretical for the industry's taste. And even if would-be film makers do emerge with the skills needed for the lighting rig or cutting room, there is no proper career structure - with a recognised point of entry into the industry and a subsequent career ladder. To get on in film, it remains far more efficient simply to have a father in the trade.

Stewart Till CBE, deputy chair of both Skillset and the UK Film Council, acknowledges the "inherent lack of a normal industrial infrastructure".

Till is also chairman and chief executive of United International Pictures, the studio behind the recent remake of The Italian Job re-make and Lara Croft Tomb Raider. The task of renewing the British skills base, he says, is two-pronged.

"First there's the question of inward investment: persuading Hollywood studios to shoot their films in the UK and not in Canada or Australia." To do this Britain needs a skills base for production crews, and special effects.

A new generation of workers in these areas will need to be trained to operate new and rapidly changing technology, particularly using digital production methods. There also needs to be a clear career ladder for production workers in a trade that is more than 90 per cent freelance and casualised. It does not help that Britain's film workforce is an ageing one.

There is another equally important, commercial task, however. The indutry needs people who can put together film deals, control production and distribute films.

After all, funding and distributing the film is where the real money is made. A hit like Notting Hill, for example, makes 85 per cent of its money from distribution abroad. Yet it has taken an American studio, UIP, to fund and produce the latest very British offering from Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Love Actually, which has just gone on general release, stars Hugh Grant in a line-up of classic predictability, including Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson and Rowan Atkinson.

"The other area we need is great producers and distributors to make and distribute films on a world-wide basis," says Till. "There's an overlap of skills, of course. But we're trying on two different battlegrounds. In the film industry we need to educate people better than ever before."

As the director Alan Parker puts it, "if we don't focus on strengthening distribution for our films, we might not have a production sector at all."

The initiative is backed with hugely ambitious rhetoric. "We want the UK to be the next biggest film centre outside Hollywood," says Dinah Caine, chief executive of Skillset.

That, however, might take something more than simply contructing a well-planned training programme. "We will be saying to the government and to industry, we have done what you expect of us, how best can we work in partnership with you," she says. "We have done our bit. Together we can do more."

Which, in movie-speak, translates as "show me the money".

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